Los Angeles Times
Sunday, May 3, 1998


California adopts a set of world-class guidelines for public schools--and the powers that be promptly try to make them disappear.

By David Klein

Question: What would happen if California adopted the best, grade-by-grade mathematics achievement standards in the nation for its public schools?

Answer: The education establishment would do everything in its power to make them disappear.

In December 1997, the State Board of Education surprised the world by not accepting extremely bad, "fuzzy" math standards written by one of its advisory committees, the Academic Standards Commission. Instead, in a few short weeks and with the help of four Stanford University math professors, the state board developed and adopted a set of world-class mathematics standards of unprecedented quality for California's public schools.

The prestigious Fordham Foundation recently  conducted an independent review of the mathematics standards for 46 states and the District of Columbia,  as well as Japan. California's new board-approved mathematics standards received the highest score, outranking even those of Japan, an educational superpower.

In sharp contrast, high-ranking school administrators, bureaucrats and legions of experts with doctorates in education have denounced California's new math standards. State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin has given speeches throughout the state criticizing the standards and calling on local educators not to implement them. Judy Codding, a member of the Academic Standards Commission and the powerful National Center on Education and the Economy has given similar explicit advice. Luther Williams, the National Science Foundation's assistant director for education and human resources, also joined the chorus of denunciation.

Why the opposition to world-class math standards? California's new standards require a deep understanding of mathematical principles, but also a heavy dose of the requisite basic skills. Unlike the rejected Academic Standards Commission version, the new math standards require students to master long division, they do not include the use of calculators in elementary school and they make no pronouncements about teaching methods so long as grade-level benchmarks are achieved. Teachers are not compelled to follow the failed methods promoted by the nation's colleges of education. This lack of coercion enraged the education bureaucrats to the point of making their threats.

In February I wrote an open letter to Charles Reed, the chancellor of the Cal State University system and a former professor of education. The open letter, which defended and praised the recently adopted State Board of Education standards for K-12 mathematics, was endorsed by more than 100 California mathematicians, including the chairs of the math departments at Stanford University, Caltech, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, Cal State Los Angeles, the vice president of the American Mathematical Society and a former president of the Mathematical Assn. of America. The nation's most famous math teacher, Jaime Escalante, portrayed in the movie "Stand and Deliver," also endorsed my letter.

I sent copies of this open letter to Los Angeles Unified School District board members and Supt. Ruben Zacarias. Zacarias had previously instructed subordinates to ignore the California math standards. Turning reality on its head, he insisted that the pathetic LAUSD math standards are better than California's. The LAUSD standards allow students to use calculators in third grade, they under-emphasize algebra in high school and they are vague and arbitrary. They are consistent with the weakest curricula, such as 'Mathland," which all but eliminates standard arithmetic in elementary school. LAUSD is deeply committed to mediocrity.

The CSU system admits the top one-third of graduating high school seniors in California. But more than half of the entering CSU freshmen statewide must take remedial math courses during their first year of college, often at the seventh-grade level. In Los Angeles it is worse. Fully 67% of entering freshmen at Cal State Northridge require remedial work in math during their first year, and the percentages have been steadily increasing since 1989. With Zacarias' anti-math policies in force, this is unlikely to improve.

One might expect support from the CSU for California's math standards. Instead, the CSUN elementary schoolteacher training courses in arithmetic integrate calculators throughout, and projects are underway to promote the weak LAUSD math standards. James Highsmith, the chair of the CSU Academic Senate, publicly denounced the new math standards in The Times. The CSU is currently revising its Entry Level Mathematics Exam to be easier. Students will be allowed to use calculators on the exam, and unpleasant topics such as logarithms will be eliminated. In this way, the CSU can sweep away the embarrassing mathematics performance of its entering freshmen the easy way, and eliminate the need for remediation by definition. CSU Chancellor Reed never responded to the open letter, endorsed by Jaime Escalante and more than 100 mathematicians, including some of the most creative mathematical thinkers in the world.

The only real hope for K-12 education reform lies with parents and citizens.

Voting Eastin out of office along with a clean sweep of her education bureaucracy would go a long way toward improving mathematics education. If LAUSD continues blindly to reject the California math standards, breaking up the district may be the best thing we could do on a local level for our schoolchildren.         - - -

David Klein Is a Mathematical Physicist and Professor of Mathematics at Cal State Northridge. His E-mail Address Is: David.klein@csun.edu

Copyright Los Angeles Times